Sex, Larkin proposed, was invented in 1963 – but that was in England. In a Wales still stifled by the residue of the puritan conformities of Non-conformity, it took a little longer, and discussion of sex came later still. Even then it was heterosex: the Other, in a culture of real men, steel men, coal men, RUGBY men, was largely unacceptable. As if to compensate, there is now a deep vein of work dealing with gender, sexuality, personal identity and deviance.
Marc Rees, who divides his time between Wales and Berlin, approaches his work from within his homosexuality. He explores this via upfrontedly sexual visual performances of great directness and drama. Personal history and the general history of the male-male sexuality intertwine, much as Oliver Reed and Allan Bates did ‘wrestling’ on the hearthrug, in front of the fire, in Ken Russell’s film of Women in Love. Clearly this is a seminal image in considering Rees’ work, that of a gay man in a culture of continuing repression.
It suggests an image archetypically Welsh which scars Rees as it has scarred others. It is an anti-Degas-aestheticised scene: a zinc bath before the black-headed fire-grate and its stoked-up fire, in which (until a generation or two ago) the coal miner, the notional opposite of the male dancer, is soaped and cleaned by wife, sister, brother, in a scene of wholesome innocence from which any suggestion of sexuality is completely eliminated.
Rees’ must have been the last generation to have other than anecdotal experience of that.
The true history of the inherent eroticism of such scenes, the identification of the miner with the Earth and the concomitant eroticism (and anti-eroticism) of claustrophobic domestic situations, is yet to be written. The miner’s descendants now are fully integrated modernii, with all the disadvantages of burger-hot-dog culture’s stag and hen homogeneity: scantily clothed, mindful of neither time nor season, ready but usually frustrated, they trip the small-town strip, with no thought of their history and utterly de-politicised. I see in the work of Marc Rees a howl of protest against this. His works are palimpsests, deeply and resonantly cultured, in which the present mingles with myth and history.